Representatives of Chartwells, the new dining service contracted to run the Farmington school cafeterias, presented the Board of Education with a progress report Monday night, saying that while the company is currently running a $149,000 deficit, they’re confident they will are winning over Farmington students.
Mike Edgar, district manager for Chartwells, gave a year-to-date overview of the company’s progress, bringing statistics of meals served this year versus last year, cost to produce each meal and a specific action plan for turning the district’s deficit into profit.
“Last year at this time, you served 94,000 meals, while this year is slightly above that, with students purchasing the healthier USDA meals,” Edgar said.
Board members and Chartwells representatives noted that stringent U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines slashing salt, sugar and fats from student diets, and limiting grain and protein portions, was certainly a factor in sales. Edgar said that in districts where Chartwells was already well established, the company was seeing reductions in sales as students balked at the healthier choices and loss of favorites.
Still, he said, Farmington students seemed to be accepting Chartwells’ healthier meals at a greater rate than those established districts. At Farmington High School, cafeteria participation increased by 6.4 percent, with a slight increase at Irving A Robbins, a slight decrease at West Woods Upper Elementary and the other elementary schools struggling the most.
Older students have bought into the Chartwells meals, which include much more fresh foods, more readily than the younger students, who in many cases are still looking for the familiar chicken nuggets and pizza of previous years.
The company has waged a campaign to win students over, and parents, too. At the beginning of the year the Chartwells bunny visited younger students and messages about health and nutrition plastered cafeterias and lunch bags.
At the high school, Chartwells chefs do demonstrations of food preparation – called action stations – where students can watch fresh pasta dishes, for example, being prepared. On a special open house day, local farmers who provide produce to Chartwells, visited the cafeterias and gave away fresh fruit.
But the move away from prepared foods has also contributed to the current deficit, Edgar said.
When Chartwells took over this summer, many of the women who had worked in the Farmington cafeterias agreed to sign on with the new company and were provided training sessions. The company purchased new equipment more suited to the Chartwells recipes and style of food preparation, and also had to provide extra training days for the Farmington employees, Edgar said.
“The folks struggled a little bit early on who we took on from Farmington Public Schools,” explained Tim Malley, director of dining services in Farmington. “Our recipes are more in-depth, use more fresh products and require more knife work, for instance, so we took more time with training… It took more than the opening two days of training… so they were comfortable preparing the new recipes and getting up to speed with the way we do business.”
Employees who made the switch from the Farmington schools-run cafeterias to Chartwells agreed that the company requires much more food preparation versus the prepared food they were serving before. A few have left in the few months since Chartwells took over and others, on condition of anonymity have said they’re not happy with all the changes. One told Patch that in the transition many employees took a significant pay cut.
In addition, Edgar said the company missed out on some revenue by not opening the high school snack bar for several weeks after the start of school.
Though the current deficit is $149,000, Edgar projects that number will fall to $17,000 by year's end. Still, the projected deficit is shrinking and the healthier food is being served.
“Two years ago, we were just under $73,000 [in deficit for the cafeteria fund], last year $92,000. So when we made this change, it was for a couple reasons – a financial one but also as Mike talked about, the quality of food,” said Mike Ryan, district business administrator.
“I don’t think the $17,000 [projected end-of-year deficit] will be there at the end of the year because your action plan is great but $17,000 is still better than last year,” Board of Education Chairman Mary Grace Reed said. And contractually, she said, Chartwells – not the school district – is responsible for the first $50,000 in debt.
“It is a process. We need to understand the community and learn everything we can do… our commitment is to better these numbers by the end of the year,” he said.